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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Part-Time Sylvania Prosecutor Suspended for Lying to Judge

The Ohio Supreme Court today suspended a former part-time Sylvania city prosecutor for six months for lying to a judge and his boss about his reasons for reducing a man’s drunken driving charge to a lesser offense.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court suspended Anthony P. Spinazze for violating several rules governing the conduct of Ohio attorneys based on his misrepresentations to the Sylvania Municipal Court, which ultimately led to the need for a special prosecutor, a new defense attorney, and a visiting judge to resolve.

Prosecutor Agrees to Lower Charge
In November 2017, law enforcement authorities in Lucas County arrested Jeremiah Johnson for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol (OVI). Two police officers indicated they observed Johnson driving his vehicle.

In January 2018, Spinazze started his position a part-time prosecutor and in April 2018 met with Johnson’s attorney and Deputy Sheriff Jeff Bretzloff to view body-camera video of Johnson’s arrest.

Johnson’s attorney indicated Johnson would be willing to plead guilty to having physical control of a vehicle while under the influence, a first-degree misdemeanor. Bretzloff objected to the offer, but Spinazze later agreed to recommending reducing the OVI charge to physical control.

Lawyer Misleads Officials
The municipal court judge learned of the plea agreement and was aware of Johnson’s two prior alcohol-related convictions . The judge requested that Spinazze appear in court and explain the recommendation. Spinazze told the judge there was a question about whether the police observed Johnson driving and that is why he agreed to reduce the charge. He also told the judge the arresting officers, including Bretzloff, consented to the plea. The court then accepted the agreement.

Later that day, Christy Cole, the city’s chief prosecutor, and Spinazze’s supervisor, heard about the plea and reviewed the “case notes” section of the prosecutor’s file. Spinazze wrote in the notes that the judge was “going to dismiss the case” unless he reduced the charge.

Considering the prior alcohol-related convictions, Cole was surprised at the reduced charge and asked Spinazze if the arresting officers consented. He admitted to her that he had not obtained the officers’ consent. But he did not tell Cole he misrepresented to the trial court that he had obtained the officers’ consent.

Weeks later, Cole listened to a recording of the court session and expressed to Spinazze her concern that he misled the court. Spinazze then claimed he made a mistake because he relied on the accounts of Johnson’s attorney without first reviewing the case file.

Officer Speaks with Prosecutor
Bretzloff told Cole that he met with Spinazze and Johnson’s attorney to watch the bodycam video and that he objected to reduced charge. Cole confronted Spinazze, who admitted Bretzloff was correct. Cole placed Spinazze on unpaid leave and he was subsequently fired.

Spinazze sent a written apology to the judge, and apologized to Bretzloff.

The city asked the court to vacate Johnson’s plea agreement, and appoint a special prosecutor to consider the case. Johnson’s attorney then withdrew from the case, and the court appointed a new prosecutor and a new defense attorney. An acting judge then vacated the plea and found Johnson guilty of OVI.

Based on the incident, the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Conduct charging Spinazze with several violations of the professional conduct rules.

During his disciplinary proceedings, Spinazze characterized his statements to the municipal court as being a mistake. When pressed on the issue at his disciplinary hearing, Spinazze admitted that he lied to the judge intentionally, and that he made a false notation in the case notes in hopes that no one would discover the reason why he agreed to reduce the recommended charge. He also admitted to lying to Cole.

After the hearing, the parties stipulated that Spinazze violated the rules, including making a false statement to a court; engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice; and engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

Board Recommends Suspension
In its recommended sanction to the justices, the board cited a statement by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor in the Court’s 2016 Disciplinary v. Brockler decision, where she said prosecutors “are authorized to enforce the law and administer justice,” and “must meet or exceed the highest ethical standards imposed on our profession.” The board recommended the six-month suspension.

While agreeing that he violated the rules, Spinazze argued that he took full responsibility for his misconduct and his actions warranted a fully stayed six-month suspension.

The Court’s opinion stated that when an attorney’s misconduct includes making a misrepresentation to a court, the Court generally imposes an actual suspension.

“Spinazze has not demonstrated that the circumstances here warrant anything less than an actual suspension from the practice of law,” the opinion stated. “He engaged in a course of deceitful conduct, starting with making multiple false statements to a court and then attempting to cover up those misrepresentations with a false notation in the case file and false excuses to his supervisor.”

In addition to the suspension, Spinazze was also taxed the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

2019-1075. Disciplinary Counsel v. Spinazze, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-957.

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